Wednesday, July 8, 2009

CC: Jammu


“Oh yeah, I am still in India.”

When you’ve been sitting in a backpacker town like McLeod for a month and have find yourself repeating the above statement more than a couple of times a week, you’ve come across a fairly good sign that it’s time to move on – if only for a short expedition.

And what better way to seek out a bit of adventure than a trip through Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh! The minute I stepped off the bus after my seven hour trip to Jammu every single thing that I saw seemed to scream out at me “Yeah, you better believe you’re still in India.” Not a single white person in sight for the next two days. There’s not even a map of the city in my Lonely Planet book so I have no idea where I am or where to go. Perfect!

After escaping my rickshaw driver’s attempt to stick me in an overpriced hotel, I leave my bags in a more reasonably priced place and head out onto the street. I’ve only got one afternoon here, and I’m gonna make it count.

A policeman on the street who can’t seem to believe his luck at meeting a Westerner fills me in on how to get to the station tomorrow morning and recommends the best spot to eat in the market (later that night I was able to confirm him to be a man of discerning taste). I then spend the next couple hours wandering through the endless sea of stalls and shops selling everything from the coolest imitation Western fashions to air conditioning units, to new sets of teeth.


The most ridiculous street stall in India!

On my way down, I notice a small looking entrance to what looks to be a temple, but I decide to pass it by since I’ve already been to too many Hindu temples to count, this one doesn’t seem anything special, and you have to leave all bags and cameras in a store room – Jammu gets more than it’s fair share of terrorist attacks from Kashmiri separatists and radicals from Pakistan.

As I passed by the second time on the way home, something made me slow down for a second though. I recalled reading Paulo Coelho’s list of advice for a meaningful travel experience. Number 9: A journey is an adventure. It’s far better to discover a church that no one’s heard of than to go to Rome and feel obliged to see the Sistine Chapel surrounded by two hundred tourists.

Alright, let’s give it a try. This is the self proclaimed city of temples after all. And what ever happened to my decision to have one excellent night in Jammu? I step through the dingy entryway into a small room and walk through a door in the back corner. It feels like I’ve just walked through the wardrobe door into Narnia!

I’m standing in a courtyard the size of an entire massive city block. It’s surrounded by outward facing shops along the perimeter which protect it from the view of passers by on the street. The spires of the temple are covered in coloured lights and the moon hangs in the sky right over the central courtyard. The courtyard is full of Indian pilgrims sitting under the trees and wandering from room to room, but it’s nowhere near as busy or frantic as any other temple I’ve seen.

Dimly lit rooms with mysterious statues of strange gods performing unintelligible feats and walls painted with mystical symbols. Strange rituals performed with peacock feathers, lingams, necklaces of flowers, and other things I can’t quite understand. Walking around the temple between alcoves, each dedicated to and containing statues and images of a different god, a sense of mystery and adventure surrounds each new discovery.

An hour later, I walk out of the temple complex, necklaces of flowers around my neck, marks on my forehead, and no idea where I’d been (no map after all), what it was called, and without a single photo. It sunk away back into the night as I walked away for dinner - as mysterious and unexplained as ever and without any idea of where I’d been. Talk about romantic!

Thank you Paulo Coelho! The rest of you tourists can keep your Taj Mahal, I’ll take my unheard of inner city temple complex any day!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

CC: May 2009 Revelations


Sometimes we experience moments so powerful, so real, so intense that our hearts feel like they’re going to overflow.


Immediately we start grasping. How can I explain what I’m feeling?


But the more we try to describe it, pin it down, examine it, the more it eludes us. The clutter of words that we surround it with seems clumsy, painfully inadequate. It only pushes us further away from the experience.


The only way we can do it justice is with silence.


Some things are meant to be known, not understood.


Shown, but not explained.


The most important thing you can learn to do is stop thinking.


Breathing meditation:


Inhale the world.


Exhale yourself.


What is he rambling about this time?


_________________________________________________


Since I’ve just published five entries all in one go, I’ll save the rest of my entries about sime more of my experiences in McLeod until I return from my adventures in Ladakh.

CC: On a More Practical Level

There are eight of us standing in a room with four beds. The walls are covered in pictures of the human body, yoga charts, and cryptic drawings with notes scrawled on the side. I notice a banner of the blue Medicine Buddha next to me (my time at Tushita paid off after all!). It looks as though there’s a pair of girls and another couple who have come together. That leaves three of us guys and one other girl.



Ten minutes later as I’m lying half naked on one of the beds watching one of my fellow male participants rub oil on another hairy man’s chest, I say a silent prayer of gratitude to the massage lesson gods. There’s a Texas (massage?) oilman looking out for me somewhere (Sorry, inside joke. If you read our Ryersonian article…)

After learning some very simple, relaxing massage techniques and practicing them on our partners we move on to a few more dubious sounding parts of the traditional Tibetan massage. We’re taught to locate our partner’s top four chakras and instructed to just touch a finger to them without pressing at all and just hold it there for 3 sets of20 seconds.

Alright, now the bullshit hits the fan, I think to myself. A minute later our teacher is over at our table showing how it works on me. “You have asthma” he tells me from touching my lung chakra. “You’re gonna wanna hold your finger here for about a minute every day and it will start to get better in a couple weeks.”



Ok, so maybe there is more to this than ancient superstition. As a number of other techniques that hardly even involve touching the body start producing their advertised effects I’m already starting to doubt whether Western medicine is everything it’s cracked up to be. And so nice to spend the time involved in a practical hands on practice after a week and a half of abstract Buddhist philosophy.

So if any of you want to sample a bit of Tibetan massage from someone who’s spent ten days getting fully (alright, barely) certified in the practice be sure to pull me aside for a couple hours next time you see me.


Diploma and Everything - I must be good!

And the Verdict Is…

Alright, I know a few of you have been asking what I made of my time at Tushita at a whole. Difficult question to answer. One night after chanting mantras in the gompa, I felt such a wonderful body of energy hanging in the room that I couldn’t bring myself to leave for half an hour after it ended. Another day I felt as though I was being brainwashed, and rebelled against the experience with every fiber of my being. In short, I found much of it amazing, and much entirely distasteful. Everything that you need for an intensely meaningful experience. I may not have learned from it exactly and exclusively what they meant to teach me, but learn from it I did.



It planted the seeds of a lot of interesting ideas in my head and helped strengthen my belief in some concepts I’d been playing around with a while. I was surprised to find that lots of it is remarkably similar to Christianity – it share many of the best and the worst characteristics, and there’s a surprising number of overlapping ideas. As a zen master might say - different fingers, same moon...



I'm pretty sure I'm living in the thunderstorm capital of India. Every three days! Too gorgeous.

CC: Zen and the Art of Falling Out of Your Upper Bunk

One morning I woke up in midair.

Smack!

I painfully climbed into an empty lower bunk, apologizing to everyone I’d woken in the dorm, and tried to sleep it off.

Several hours of limping through the next day later, I suddenly remembered something I’d seen the previous night.

After our last meditation session of the night, I’d continued to sit outside on the steps to the gompa, staring at the full moon rising above the trees and taking in the scene before me. Below, someone was circumambulating the stupa not far away, immersed in a walking meditation. Every step he took radiated confidence, mindfulness, grace. There was such intensity and purpose in every movement that it was as captivating as the moon hanging in the air above.


Lama Yeshe's Stupa

Before going to bed I had walked around a couple of times myself but always felt clumsy and awkward in the process. I couldn’t sink my attention into my steps to the extent that I wanted to and my unconscious impatience with the task disrupted the rhythm of my movement. I felt like a bumbling idiot.

The next afternoon as I limped with every step while trying to walk at a normal pace, I felt the previous night’s clumsiness amplified to a comic level. Very funny. After a while I gave up and slowed down to a snail’s pace. And I noticed something. If I took small, slow steps, I could walk perfectly normally without any pain. Even though it was much slower and probably much less efficient, I immediately started to felt better about myself. I set my pace several notches slower.

Everytime I got restless and started to speed up, or ceased to be mindful and removed my attention from each step that I was taking, the pain in the hip that I’d landed on last night was quick to bring my attention immediately back to what I was doing. Inattention was no longer an option.



Before the day was through I found myself fully absorbed in every step that I took; giving my utmost attention to every shift in weight, bend of the foot, and change in rhythm that I experienced. As I walked around the stupa that night – intensely mindful and with a fluidity and grace that was entirely absent the day before, it all suddenly became clear to me. Life really has a funny way of teaching you what you need to learn sometimes.

All the same, I think might stick to the lower bunk in the future.

Add ‘walking with an elven grace’ to the CV…

CC: Tushita Meditation Centre Mix ’09

Definitely one of the most interesting things about spending a week and a half in a monastery is adhering the rule wherein you can’t talk or listen to music. Although I must admit that I did break the silence a couple times (A monkey made me do it! Literally), I was surprised how much I learned just by not talking. Everything becomes more immediate. Since there’s no words to hide behind or justify yourself with, every action you make screams out at ten times its usual volume. When five of you are standing around the sink brushing your teeth, that’s exactly where your mind is. You’re not fishing for thoughts, trying to express your feelings about anything, or worrying about anything other than the act of tooth brushing. You see people as your friends that you’ve never spoken to in your life. It was really intense! I learned at least as much from the experience as from the teachings.



On the flip side though, that many days spent in silence is a surefire invitation for any song you’ve ever heard in your life to pop in and get stuck in your head for a while. So, for your benefit (and that of all sentient beings), here’s my Tushita Meditation Centre Mix ’09 (alternately referred to as Drunken Elephant Mind Mix ’09) of all the songs that managed to get stuck in my head for the longest amount of time. Now you can reproduce the experience of being sequestered in a Tibetan Buddhist meditation center from the comfort of your very own home. Please note that a song’s inclusion does not necessarily indicate that I like that song. This especially applies to the conclusion that Clare Hill is about to jump to.


  1. The Art of Dying – George Harrison (Reincarnation and other obvious reasons)
  2. Tomorrow Never Knows – The Beatles (song about The Tibetan Book of the Dead)
  3. A Taste of Honey – The Beatles (I put a lot of honey on my bread and this song arose in my mind. This one’s really sad)
  4. It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding – Bob Dylan (Just cause it’s too good to stop thinking about once you start)
  5. Daddy Cool – Boney M (I think it may have something to do with my Mr Cool T shirt. I felt particularly lame having this in my head)
  6. Like a Rolling Stone – Bob Dylan (The constant ‘how do you feels’ in analytical meditations)
  7. I, Me, Mine – The Beatles (Got some ego dissolving to do)
  8. Stop Your Sobbing – The Kinks (Just stupidly catchy)
  9. I’m Down – The Beatles (Actually pretty fun to have stuck in your head. Maybe my favourite of the lot. I may have been feeling down at the time, I don’t know)
  10. Human – The Killers (Lord knows what this was doing there)
  11. Om Mani Padme Hum mantra (That’s one catchy mantra! It doesn’t help that it was playing in every CD vendor’s shop on my trip in Nepal either)
  12. I Dig Love – George Harrison (Bit of compassion and loving kindness. It’s a pretty cool song too)
  13. Moose and the Grey Goose – Paul McCartney (I was reading one of the Jakartas about one of the Buddha’s previous reincarnations as a goose)
  14. Lady Be Good – George Gershwin (I was just really happy. It was the version from the film Manhattan)
  15. My Sweet Lord (Pirate Version) – George Harrison (I have no idea)
  16. The Levee’s Gonna Break/Plastic Man mashup – Chris Ciosk (Bob Dylan/The Kinks) – (Guess I was just bored)
  17. Oh! Darling – The Beatles (There was a gorgeous thunderstorm after a great meditation session and I was feeling a bit intense)
  18. Falling Slowly – Once Soundtrack (Gotta have some romance in there somewhere – I certainly wasn’t going to get it from the monks)

Friday, May 22, 2009

CC: The Road Goes Ever On and On

After having spent some time with the Tibetans living in the mountains of Nepal and read the Dalai Lama’s autobiography, “Freedom in Exile” (really worth a read), I’ve realized that a change in plans is in order. There is now absolutely no way I could even entertain the possibility of paying a mandatory Chinese tour guide hundreds of dollars to take me through the few reconstructed areas of the country that they’ve spent the last fifty years destroying.

The best alternative I can see is to head up to Dharamsala in northern India instead – the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile (and the western backpacker population in exile as well, as I soon came to learn). The result of this decision turned out to be perhaps five of the most uncomfortable days of my life. My travel itinerary:

Riding the roof of a bus in the Terai


  1. Thanks to the strikes in the Terai, it takes a single 19 hour ride in a bus whose seats are designed for someone a foot shorter than me to reach the border (which is maybe 200 or 300 km away at most). Between hours spent waiting for enough passengers to show up for the trip to be profitable, being stuck in traffic, and countless snack and meal stops, the bus manages to get me there at 2am.
  2. From the bus stop it’s a one hour walk to the border. A nice chance to stretch my legs actually.
  3. After spending a couple hours finding the bus despite endless misdirection from Indians trying to scam me into buying expensive private transport (nice to be back – and I say that without sarcasm), a 4 hour bus trip through the plains almost makes me wish it was a 19 hour bus trip through the mountains thanks to the 40 degree pre-monsoon heat.
  4. After a night of marinating in my own sweat in my hotel room, I get to the train station for a trip that gets me to Amritsar 27 hours later.
  5. I spend the night in the Sikhs’ extremely welcoming and friendly Golden Temple (where I seemed to be of more interest than a temple made of solid gold to half of the curious pilgrims there). The next morning it’s a 3 hour bus ride to Pathankot where I transfer to another 3.5 hour bus ride into the hills to lower Dharamsala and finally one more half hour ride up to McLeod Ganj. Phew.

Next time someone goes on about how tough it must be to sit on a plane with meals and movies for 20 hours to get to New Zealand I think I may have a fit of the giggles. I may as well have made the journey to Mordor to get here as far as I’m concerned.

CC: I'll Soon Be Seeing You.

After a few days in town, I’ve finally found the Kathmandu that Cat Stevens was singing about.

To be honest, I was by no means looking forward to arriving. When you’re talking to trekkers you can’t mention Kathmandu without being barraged with words such as loud, pollution, beggars, dirty, and awful, to name a few. In fact I’d only met two people who seemed to really like it at all.

So it was with much trepidation that I peered out the window of the bus as we started to roll in to the outskirts of the city. Not so bad yet - maybe it doesn’t really hit you till you get to the city centre…

Kathmandu from Above - ok, a bit polluted

I step off the bus. Huh. There’s no shit in the streets. I can’t see a single person relieving him or herself at the side of the road or even detect the smell of urine. A cow politely moves out of the way for the traffic – consisting mostly of pedestrians and just a few motorbikes.

“My friend! My friend!” Here it comes. Time to get besieged by touts, shop owners, and beggars. “No thanks.” I reply (unusually polite after my time in the friendly mountain villages). He nods and walks away. Wait! What? He left as soon as I said I wasn’t interested?.

Big stupa in the middle of a square


This doesn’t seem right. As far as I can see, Kathmandu is an India veteran’s wet dream. It’s as though someone took note of every cry of frustration I’d ever uttered about all of the worst problems in big Indian cities and just removed them from Kathmandu. Walking through Thamel (the big tourist district), I’m surrounded by comfortable hotels and immaculate restaurants serving spot on western food. This place just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the subcontinent! It’s like a theme park!

Expensive Thamel restaurant

But then again, it’s like a theme park. I didn’t come all this way to sip chai (inflated to six times the normal Nepali price!) and munch on salads and pizza with Westerners on short vacations whose budgets are as big as they are boring. After a few days it’s time to migrate to Freak Street (yup, that’s actually what it’s called). I don’t even think I rationally played any part in making this decision either – I suspect that my month and a half old beard in conjunction with my Aladdin pants made that particular decision for me.

Looking down Freak Street at night

Away from the travel agencies and souvenir shops, and right next to the city’s Dubar Square, it was seriously like walking through a time portal. Four decades melted away before my eyes. A few hotel inspections later I chance upon the Moonstay Lodge (costing about $2.50 a night). This is more like it!

My room!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

CC: In the Jungle

I’ve been picking up skills in the jungle that I’d never even thought about learning.


For instance, we’ve all heard of how incredibly quiet and stealthy elves can be. I had a bit of a crash course in stealthy movement the other day actually with perhaps the best teacher that one can have - a wild rhinoceros. When you’re less than ten meters away, on foot, in the middle of nowhere, from a two ton animal that can run at 50km/hour and regularly attacks visitors to the area, you find that you’ve suddenly become a very stealthy person indeed. Your breathing slows down; each foot is softly and deliberately place on a spot on the ground carefully preselected for its absence of dried leaves or twigs; and all the while you’re intensely aware of the smallest movement or sound anywhere around you. Luckily the rhino saw and heard a lot less of us than we did of him. And my guide graciously decided to tell me all the terrible stories about people he knew who had been irreparably damaged in rhino attacks.


Not quite the rhino in question. I saw this one from safely atop an elephant - the last thing we needed at that time was the whirring of a comera turning on.


I also took a bit of time off to practice for my next battle with a war oliphant, although in a much more relaxed setting. I think I may just be the only with ‘elephant climbing’ on the skills section of my resume when I go for the part of an elf. Legolas would be proud.



Climbing onto an elephant via its trunk.



Saturday, April 18, 2009

CC: Yak Attack!

Got charged by a wild yak today up on a steep path off the main track.


Too bad old four legs couldn’t scramble down to a lower platform like I could (and oh how I scrambled).



Standing in the middle of the path in front of me before it happened

Makes a much better story than an experience. Not fun.

Rockslide

Most people complain about the road on the other side of the pass, and quickly express their disapproval of roads being built along treks by paying a large amount of money to take a jeep along it and proving the profitability of its existence.



I personally found the road to be an excellent excuse for some of my better adventures that came about looking for ways to avoid walking along it.

For instance, how often has an opportunity come up in your life to ride a rockslide down a steep slope into a river valley? After following a smaller path several hundred meters down, I found that it had come to and end leaving me with two options: to scramble up hundreds of meters over loose rocky ground to the road high above me or to sit down, slide the couple hundred meters down into the valley and then follow the river to the next town. One option struck me as being considerably more entertaining.


Looking up the slope I went down to the top of the valley where the road was. Me and the road met up later a few hours down the line.


Even walking at the bottom of the valley was an exciting experience – looking for safe spots to ford the stream, finding massive fossils the size of my face lying around the ground, and just getting an opportunity to explore the landscape along a route that no one else had taken.



Sure it took me twice as long to reach the next villiage, but it was definitely worth the extra effort. All in all, a quite successful detour.

My next attempt to avoid the road ended up with me falling into a river though. Maybe it’s not entirely the worst idea to just follow the road…

CC: Refuge

Coming down on the other side of the pass, one thought was constantly present on my mind. If I see another identical trekking lodge or have another inane conversation with another boring trekker, I think I’m going to be sick. If you can only walk for two hours in a day because of the altitude gain, you don’t need to start packing up to leave before the crack of dawn. Sure, they’re all seeing the mountains as they walk and have their guide and porter to talk to, but they’re living in a trekker bubble not Nepal. The identical lodges that they prefer and identical people they talk to really have nothing to offer after a couple of days. It’s like walking through a mountain valley and never taking your eyes off the path under your feet to see the views. I really miss backpackers – trekkers make a very poor replacement.


I walk an extra half hour past the lodge resort at the far side of the pass to a small town that the main road misses (the hardest half hour I’ve ever made myself walk after that two kilometer descent). Within two hours I’m chatting happily with my new unofficially adopted Nepali family in Jharkot who make it their mission to keep me company for the rest of my stay. In the next few days I hear my fill of all the local gossip, get taken out on a day trip by the hotel owner’s niece to visit all her friends and relatives in the valley, roam the city with all the boys on vacation from school, and even get an archery lesson. (Although I couldn’t quite hit an orc right between the eyes from a hundred meters away, my skills are now developed to a point where I’d be quite useful at, say, Helm’s Deep). I was really too happy to even begin to try expressing anything about the experience properly.


It’s amazing how an extra week to take your time on the trek and the motivation to walk just a few meters of the beaten track can add such an immeasurable level of depth to the experience. My trip in the mountains was instantly transformed from a mildly tedious experience to the best part of my trip.

CC: The Thorung La

Your legs feel a bit like you’re trying to walk along the bottom of a swimming pool. You feel as though like walking on the moon. Cue the Police song getting stuck in my head.



I’d spent the last twelve nights’ sleep at carefully selected altitudes to acclimatize well enough to make it comfortably over the five and a half kilometer high pass. You could tell who hadn’t. All the super fit groups of trekkers who figured they could make it in less than the recommended time were already back home days ago. As were all of those who didn’t schedule a few contingency days for sickness and snowstorms. The woman nearby that’s losing the power of speech mid sentence only tried to rush things by a day or two. Same with the one slumped over a horse being led up by a porter.

Basically the higher you go, the less oxygen you get with each breath. By the top of the pass you’re getting about half as much in each breath as you’re used to. Apparently at the summit of Everest it’s down to about a third. If you decide to sleep too much higher than the previous night on any given day, you’ll know that you have soon enough. The headache you start feeling is from the fluids leaking in your skull creating too much pressure. It’s best not to find out the next symptoms.



My mind slips back into focus on the task at hand: moving my right leg to a position slightly higher and further along the pass than my left leg and pulling my body forward. The landscape is barren and grim. Gone are the towering mountains over the valley – here the peaks rise only nominally above the ridge that I’m climbing.

As I finally reach the highest point, I’m feeling pretty good. Especially after watching the other less acclimatized trekkers struggling with the altitude. Looking back behind me to appreciate the mountain landscape, one thing catches my attention. I haven’t left any footprints in the deep snow. Looks like my elven training has been paying off after all. The layer of ice frozen over the snow had nothing to do with it.


CC: The Ice Lake


The first time you make it up over the snow line feels as though you’re walking into another world. It’s an incredible, gorgeous, surreal place to be. It’s also a place that really doesn’t want you to be there and makes a point of making that clear. The mountains don’t make you feel small quite to the extent that they make you feel fragile.

CC: 5416m

As I dragged myself to the top of the ridge, wet and exhausted, I took a moment to catch my breath and see how far I’d come. Watching the eagles soaring by below me in the valley and looking up at the insane mountain views, I started to feel pretty pleased with myself. It felt like I was on top of the world. It had taken me an hour of steep uphill climbing from the base of the hill, but I’d made it! I decided to look at my map to see how far I’d come. I was up to 1300 meters - 500 meters higher than the start of the Annapurna Circuit - the trek that I’d started yesterday.



I think my heart broke just a little bit at that moment. I was set to be ascending to 5416 meters. My triumphant climb – not to mention two days of a steady uphill slope had taken me just 10% of the way to my final altitude

It was that moment that I realized what I’d gotten myself into. The Himalaya jumped into their proper perspective: a half hour run, but vertically toward the sky instead of along the ground; 10 CN Towers stacked on top of each other; the summit of the highest mountain in the Rockies plus an extra vertical kilometer; just a bit more of an ascent than from Everest’s base camp to its summit – and that was just as high as I was climbing, that height came no where close to the height of most of the mountains in the area.


Nothing to do but put your head down and keep walking.



Friday, March 20, 2009

CC: A Farewell to India

I’m going to miss India. But that’s not to say that I’m not glad to leave (or even that I could have dealt with another week right now). It seems to be the case that most people either love or hate traveling in India. Not being one to take sides, I’ve taken it upon myself to both love and hate if at the same time. There are few places where I’ve felt so happy and at peace, though nowhere that’s been able to frustrate or upset me to this extent.

To some people you’re a walking ATM from which the object is to extract as much money as possible, to others you’re some sort of freak to be stared at (and you have not been stared at until you’ve been stared at by an Indian for an entire bus trip), and to others you’re someone to be treated as a dear friend. For every fifty people who won’t accept your refusal to get in their autorichshaw, give them money, buy their drugs, or take them as a guide; there’s always at least one person with so much love and concern for you and everyone they meet that it almost makes up for everyone else. Some people won’t lift a finger without the promise of an unreasonable number of rupees, but some will take an hour out of their own time to make your day as pleasant as possible and refuse any sort of payment for the service.

It’s really just a massive paradox; one that any Indian will admit that they don’t understand themselves. Sometimes the religion seems like a commercial, meaningless, theme park like activity – while sometimes it hits on something so beautiful and profound that you can’t help but feel it.

It’s a culture where girls aren’t allowed to leave home from when they hit puberty until after they’re married (and usually bitter and overweight). Where people won’t treat others from lower castes as equally relevant human beings. Where hygene and environmental concerns are irrelevant. But it’s also a culture where everyone is on a spiritual quest. Where curiosity always trumps indifference. Where you can find people with so much love in them that you can feel it.

Even though it’s so completely foreign to your sensibilities you never feel alone. So many people are so happy to draw you into it that there’s no question you might have that will go unanswered. Or no bus ride where you’ll be left in peace. I’ve heard stories from people my age about their families and their arranged marriages, about having to sneak around with girls so their parents never see them together, or on the other end of the spectrum about militantly defending their conservative way of life against western influence.

No matter how you spin it there’s a lot to learn from India – both through imitation and through avoiding their example. And if nothing else you can’t help but admire their uncompromising pursuit of their way of life. But in the meantime I can’t help but pursue a little bit of peace and quiet in Nepal.

CC: On the Road to Rishikesh

The further along Swarg Ashram Road you go, the more the guest houses,touts, beggars, and merchants start to thin out until the road turns into gravel path and the only buildings to be seen are the small huts where some of the sadhus live by the river. If you walk right past the main turn off where guards are watching the gate, you can take a tiny path along the side of the fence, slip through the ineffectively placed barbed wire, and emerge into the ruins of the Maharishi’s ashram where The Beatles once stayed.

It feels more like walking through the ruins of an ancient city than a recently vacated spiritual retreat. The forest has reclaimed most of the buildings, and there are few windows or even toilets (western style) still left unbroken. Even more astonishing, no matter where you go, you’re surrounded by one of the rarest things one can find in India – silence. Apart from the singing of birds, the wind in the trees, and the rustling of an occasional monkey passing overhead, there’s not a thing to be heard.

It’s really quite a trip to be there. To walk by the room that (dear) Prudence locked herself up in, or the spot where George Harrison would have sat working out the lyrics for While My Guitar Gently Weeps. It's certainly felt more historically significant (for me anyway) than any of the palaces or temples I'd dropped in on so far.

But even stronger than that sense of historical significance, after spending some time exploring, was the slow revelation that despite the incredible things that had happened there, the geography – the exact physical location - was irrelevant. The inspiration for the white album didn’t come from that specific spot on the hill where they were staying. It came out of the energy of the place. It comes from being at the opposite side of the world, living in a bubble with other foreigners in the middle of a strange and exciting culture. It grows out of the community of people full of exciting ideas and dedicated to finding something bigger than they've grown up knowing. If I really wanted see where it all came from, I’d have done better off to stay back at the ashram where I was staying. The farther one travels, the less one knows.

Now if only I were a musical genius, I could really make something excellent of the experience.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

CC: Everybody’s Got Something to Hide

One of the things that upsets me most about my trip to India is that it’s lead me to hate monkeys. I used to love them so much. Before they started trying to steal my stuff and attack me. The locks on my zippers have so far protected my belongings not from people but from monkeys.


They wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t always travel in gangs. You’d better hope there’s someone else to help fight them off once there’s four or five of them hissing at you at once from all sides in the middle of a suspension bridge.


If you ever find yourself being cornered or stolen from, make sure to bend over and pretend to pick up a rock to throw as quickly as possible if you don’t want to fall victim to a gang of our primate brothers.


Bastards!

CC: Jai Sri Krishna

It seems that no one in India can understand or pronounce the name Chris. They either nod politely and forget what my name is or just laugh out loud when they hear it. So while I’m traveling the subcontinent, I’ve adopted the name Krishna after the hero of the Bhagavad Gita and favourite God of most Indian women. Krish for short. The name of a famous Bollywood star – as I’ve been told everytime I tell anyone my new Indian name.

Elementary penguin singing hare Krishna. Man you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allen Poe.

I still haven't mastered the art of holding a flute quite so erotically though.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

CC: Bollywood!

I’m standing at the entrance of a futuristic looking, blue pulsating club. I was originally meant to enter, escorting my female companion, down a grand stairway covered in brightly coloured flashing lights. Perhaps wisely though, the powers that be decided to cover the stairway with scantily clad dancing girls instead, so I’ve been relegated to the bottom.

“You will all groove to the music! I don’t want to see anyone sitting idle! Nobody!” An AD yells at a group of people seated on couches to the side of the stage.

“Before you start walking you need to react to the music. Look like you are having a good time,” says another AD to me and my partner.

“Yeah, just pretend that we’re fantastic!” Says Kylie Minogue as she walks by on her way to the stage.

My fellow clubbers and myself hanging out on the lot, (questionably) dressed for a serious night out.

The shot is set, the music starts, and it begins. Kylie starts lip syncing to her song that’s been played on the speakers all day as ten Indian men in shiny pants burst forth from the wings and start dancing. We all start acting like we’re having a great time. For about ten seconds. Then they cut the music and send us back to ones for the next half hour that it takes to set up another shot. Meanwhile the ADs continue giving us conflicting instructions and treating us like cattle. In the western style of cattle treatment that is – they don't just let us free to wander through the city and block traffic.

It seems like being an extra is the same thankless work in India as it is in Toronto. Except that since all the other extras are all interesting Western backpackers, you get to avoid the usual crowd of the serious over-actors, the clinically insane, and (as Dan Voshart would attest) vampires, that usually populate the extra scene.

And I got to be in a Bollywood dance scene with the green fairy from Moulin Rouge. So mustn’t complain.

Monday, February 23, 2009

CC: Kalpetta, India

I think this may be the closest I’ll ever come to being some sort of celebrity. There’s few enough western travelers in the south of India to begin with, but it seems like I’ve hit a spot that very few of us make it to.

I've yet to take a bus trip without having a random person squeeze in next to me and tell me the story of their life, initiate a philosophical conversation, tell me about all of their children, or start talking about movies once their line of questioning reveals the fact that I’ve ‘completed my studies in filim’. Apparently I look like Harry Potter.

Usually though I just have to go through the standard ‘What your name? Where you from?’ with every person that I see before they shake my hand and walk away (giggling as often as not). The strangest thing was the jeep ride home the other day when we had to wave back to at least 20 or 30 groups of people on the way. I felt like the queen.

Maybe all of this will help me to discover what it's like to be Orlando Bloom

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

CC: Mamallapuram, India

Alright, so I'm not really sure how I'm gonna operate this blog thing while I'm away. I'm sure you don't want to hear all the tedious details of where I've been and what it's like and what I'm doing next. And even if you did, I can't give away all my best stories online! So I think I'm probably just gonna be putting up some random thoughts and situations whenever I feel the urge without trying to give you a blow by blow of everything that I've been doing. That way I won't feel any obligation to keep up to date or anything, and you'll be spared from reading a lot of filler to get to anything interesting. Like you're doing right now.
So anyway, here's one I wrote last week but never got around to posting.
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In a strange reversal of the natural order of things, it seems that my pants have turned out to be too sexy for me. I knew that I probably should have bought a more comfortable pair. What I didn’t know is that in the tropical climate of Southern India, pants as tight as the ones I’d brought are a one way ticket to heat rash. It didn’t help either that I’d managed to rip the crotch open two days ago while climbing to the top of a cave, chasing monkeys.

One of the monkeys in question

It was a bittersweet moment yesterday when India lost the privilege of gazing upon my finely formed lower appendages in their natural form-fitting habitat as I donned that same style of pants worn by every Indian man I’ve seen so far. My legs couldn’t help but rejoice though.

The ruin of my former pants

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In other news, if you missed my screening of An Adventurer Is You or just loved it so much that you need to see it again, I have good news for you! You can now buy it online on the Kingdom of Loathing Store. Check it out!
http://store.asymmetric.net/